It's less than a week until the Oklahoma defense faces the challenge of containing the Heisman Trophy winner, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, in the Cotton Bowl.
While the Sooners have faced plenty of offensive weapons this season, no one comes close to the level of athleticism and play-making ability Manziel possesses. Needless to say, the Sooners have their work cut out for them.
However, the Sooners do have a glimmer of hope. Manziel wasn't perfect the entire season, and OU can gather a lot from the defensive game plans of each of the Aggies' 12 opponents.
The Aggies faced three terrific defenses in 2012, Florida, LSU, and Alabama, losing to the Gators and Tigers. Each of those defenses is good enough to not have to come up with any crazy schemes to contain Manziel, particularly Florida, who was the Aggies' first opponent of the season. However, looking at each of those games, you can learn what it will take for Oklahoma to contain the Heisman Trophy winner.
Florida- The Gators used a linebacker to consistently "spy" on Manziel. At all times a Gator player had his eyes in the backfield, mirroring Manziel's movements. Aside from that technique, the Gators simply played sound, fundamental defense. They tackled well, kept everything in front of them, and did a good job of keeping Manziel contained, not allowing him to get to the outside and use his speed.
LSU- The Tigers also used a linebacker spy on Manziel, but unlike the Gators, LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis threw a lot of blitzes at Manziel in order to rattle the freshman. The plan worked as Manziel threw three interceptions, two of them on very poor throws. Like Florida, the Tigers tackled well and kept Manziel from getting into space.
Alabama- The Crimson Tide did the poorest job of containing Manziel, as he was able to carve up the Alabama defense, both on the ground and through the air. The Tide used a linebacker spy most of the time as well, but the wrinkle they employed a lot was a corner blitz. The speed of a secondary player coming on a blitz obviously makes a world of difference against a player with the speed of Manziel. Once again, the biggest key for Alabama keeping Manziel somewhat contained after the first quarter was sure tackling and good containment on the perimeter.
On Manziel's signature play against Alabama, where he seemed to be cornered, nearly fumbled the football, spun out of the pocket, and finally found Ryan Swope all alone in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, CBS commentator Gary Danielson commented, "You can't teach that and you can't defend that." He's right. No one schemes to have a player slip a couple tackles, run around for 10 seconds, and then throw the ball downfield. The key for Oklahoma will be forcing Manziel to beat them with his arm. The OU secondary is the strength of the defense. If the Sooners allow Manziel (or any A&M player) to run freely, it's going to be a VERY long night for the Sooners. Down the stretch of the season, the Sooners had quite a few missed tackles, something that cannot happen against a player as elusive as Manziel.
OU defensive ends coach Bobby Jack Wright said OU has to force Manziel to stay in the pocket in order to have a chance to limit his production.
"You can't let him get out," Wright said. "That's easier said than done. Can we keep him in the pocket? Can we keep him under control? Can we make him go through all of his read progression and throw the ball from the pocket? Nobody else has made him do that and I don't know if we can do it or not either, but we'll see."
Simply put, the Sooners need to follow the blueprint of the three teams mentioned above: tackle well, keep contain on Manziel, and confuse him with different pressures and coverages. If Oklahoma can do that consistently, even some of the time, the Sooners have a great chance of winning the game. The Texas A&M defense is good, but not great, particularly in the secondary, and Landry Jones should be able to have his way throwing the football. The key is how Oklahoma's defense attempts to shut down or contain Manziel. The game literally depends on it.